A Minneapolis Police Department SWAT team leader accused of punching and seriously injuring a man last summer at Tanner’s Station in Andover was found guilty of all charges Saturday by an Anoka County District Court jury.
David Richard Clifford, 48, of Andover, was convicted of felony first-, third- and misdemeanor fifth-degree assault charges. He will be sentenced May 29.
Brian Vander Lee and Clifford were with groups of people at separate tables on the outdoor patio of Tanner’s Station the evening of June 16, 2012. A surveillance video showed Clifford punch Vander Lee in the face and run away.
Vander Lee hit his head on the concrete patio when he fell and suffered a severe brain injury. He had three brain surgeries to repair the damage and has continued medical issues because of the injury, according to the Anoka County Attorney’s Office.
Assistant Anoka County Attorneys Blair Buccicone and Robert Goodell and defense attorney Fred Bruno utilized the surveillance video and testimony throughout the trial to explain why Clifford punched Vander Lee that evening.
There was no disagreement that Vander Lee and the group he was with on the patio that evening were being rowdy and swearing a lot and that Clifford ultimately punched Vander Lee.
Bruno stated during closing arguments April 12 that when Vander Lee told Clifford to “sit the (expletive) down” and suddenly stood up and began to raise his left arm, Clifford’s years of self-defense training kicked in.
According to Bruno, before his client was head of the Minneapolis SWAT team, he had a decorated military career that included being in the 82nd Airborne Division when it was part of the force that invaded Grenada in 1983 to rescue American medical students who were being held hostage. He has also protected U.S. presidents and diplomats in places like Iraq and Kosovo.
“Is this the type of person who picks a fight or a person who reacts to being attacked,” Bruno told the jury.
Although Vander Lee fell down and cracked his skull on the concrete, Bruno said his client acted in self-defense, so the jury should the injuries were not pertinent to this case.
Bruno did state that Vander Lee’s blood alcohol concentration level was 0.189 at the time. A Tanners Station tab showed that Vander Lee’s table had purchased 36 alcoholic beverages.
In his closing argument, Buccicone said Vander Lee should not have been using bad language, but that is not a crime.
Punching someone in the face unprovoked is however, and he said the fact that doctors at Mercy Hospital were able to save Vander Lee’s life and he was able to walk into the courtroom is “a miracle in modern medicine.”
According to Buccicone, Clifford is trained to know when somebody is intoxicated and should have realized that with him being larger than Vander Lee, it would have not been much of a fight.
Buccicone showed the surveillance video long before the punch happened to show what he said was a relaxed atmosphere on the patio and how nobody else appeared to feel threatened by Vander Lee.
Buccicone said Vander Lee was cornered when Clifford walked up and tapped him on the shoulder while he was sitting down at his table and on the phone.
Clifford should have set aside his pride and walked away, complained to the Tanners Station staff or asked to be moved to one of the empty tables elsewhere on the patio or inside the restaurant, according to Buccicone.
Instead, Clifford punched Vander Lee after he rose from his chair and ran away with his wife Kellie following him, Buccicone said.
“They fled this scene like rats from a sinking ship,” he said.
Bruno objected to this statement, which the judge overruled, and later said that Clifford’s training taught him to quickly retreat from dangerous surroundings.
Brian’s brother Mike Vander Lee chased down Clifford and threw him into his wife Kellie Clifford’s vehicle, which broke his rib, according to Bruno. Nobody has charged Mike Vander Lee for this attack, Bruno said.
The jury deliberated for about five hours Friday evening. The jury resumed deliberation at 9 a.m. Saturday morning before coming back at 11 a.m. with a verdict.
Eric Hagen is at [email protected]